Category Archives: Features

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Oz the Great and Powerful

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

I will preface this column by sharing that my relationship with the incredible and beautiful land of Oz and its many offshoots and stories goes way back.  Before I reached the age of 5, my mom had read me the 14 Oz books (I reread them myself at age 10) and they have since represented one of my most special and formative fantasy worlds I have ever experienced.  Both the 1939 motion picture classic and the hauntingly engrossing book-based sequel from Disney, Return to Oz, have an important place on my DVD shelf.  My dream directorial or producing project remains an HBO backed fantasy television series a la Game of Thrones that chronicles the brilliant ingenuity and lush storytelling of L. Frank Baum’s more than a dozen original books.  When I stepped into the snowed-in cinema last Friday afternoon on opening day of Oz the Great and Powerful, I was still so excited to be transported back to a world that I remember so fondly, despite the early reviews that had not treaded so favorably on this latest road of yellow brick incarnation.  Notwithstanding, I desperately wanted Oz to be both “great” and “powerful.”  Unfortunately, as you will read below, this was not the case.

1) Oz the Great and Powerful is neither a great nor powerful movie and is largely a waste of your viewing energy and time.  Despite depicting a fantastical world of flying talking monkeys (in this case they were mostly baboons), the wickedest of witches, and sights never before seen in the monotonous grey boredom of the state of Kansas, the land of Oz’s great power has always been in heart, soul, and emotional authenticity.  Yes, there is certainly a leap of logic when a lion or a scarecrow are able to speak to you, but once you spend a little time digging deeper into what is behind the mane or layer of straw (respectively), these characters have the same wants, desires, and feelings as you or I.  Oz the Great and Powerful is disappointingly emotionally inauthentic and largely without any real feeling.  Most core characters meander through this once (and too obviously and overall too fake) green screen world making decisions that have little to do with understandable motivations.  The central protagonist and antagonist conflict between James Franco’s Oz (more on him in a bit) and Mila Kunis‘ wicked witch-to-be resounds in a fantasy world of its own, mired in unbelievable action and reactions that leave the viewer caring less and less.  The stakes are low, the consequences don’t really seem to matter, and the land of Oz really feels like a dream that you immediately forget when you wake up.

2) After struggling to watch James Franco on screen for almost the entirety of the belabored more than two hours of movie run-time, I have come to a decision that I should have made a long time ago: I will no longer be attending James Franco movies.  A day after the movie release, vulture.com did a brilliant piece titled “What the critics said about James Franco as Oz” that expertly catalogues the many different ways critics said James Franco was a problem.  There are some great lines to pull-out (“Franco is, frankly, too callow, too feckless, too much the dude for this role” and “A flat, awkward central performance by James Franco), but no one characterizes his performance better perhaps than Keith Ullich from Time Out New York: “Franco is a distinctly uninspiring Oz, which works for the early scenes, but is near disastrous when he assumes his predestined roles of liberator, savior and big giant head. The actor’s two default modes—stoned indifference and performance-art aloofness—do not an invigorating leader make.”  That is just it.  James Franco spends the entirety of the movie aloof and distant, with a callow grin seemingly habitually painted on his face that gives out an “I don’t really care” aura.  Like his infamous Oscar co-hosting “performance,” Franco’s lack of interest is off-putting.  It is through this apathetic and hubris filled lens that we follow his Wizard of Oz character through what should be the most magnificent of worlds.  To Franco, it all seems kind of average and mundane and it subsequently leaves the audience with little reason to care.

3) Going in to the movie, I knew that my preconceptions about James Franco were going to be obstacles to overcome (and boy were my fears validated), but in considering the three women cast as the witches of Oz, I was genuinely excited.  Michelle Williams is a wonderful actress who never shies away from taking emotional risks (see Blue Valentine).  Mila Kunis has always been delightful to me and this became all the more true after watching this interview with Chris Stark from the BBC.  Rachel Weisz could very well be my answer to the question, “who is your favorite movie actress?”, and I usually cherish opportunities to watch her do her thing on screen, let alone in a world as personally beloved to me as Oz.  Unfortunately, all three witch performances were complete disappointments.  Michelle Williams plays Glinda as if she is still in role on the set of My Week with Marilyn and consequently comes across as a flighty ingenue without substance or strength.  Mila Kunis plays Theodora (SPOILER ALERT: the naive witch, who, over the course of the movie, improbably and irrationally becomes the iconic Wicked Witch of the West, green makeup and all) as a lifeless Audrey Hepburn fashion wannabe.  Her physical transformation is one thing, but Kunis’ attempt at a witch voice is the worst Christian Bale as Batman impersonation that you will ever hear.  Poor Rachel Weisz tries so hard to chew up the vast expansive space that the green screen behind her has so obviously fabricated, but even Rachel cannot hide some of her struggles with dialogue and motivation that mire her evil Evanora character.  I spent a little too much time wishing for Dorothy’s house to arrive and crush her ruby slipper adorned body.

4) It says something when the most authentic and relatable characters in the movie, Finley, the talking monkey voiced by Zach Braff, and China Girl, voiced by Joey King (who also played the young Marion Cotillard from the prison in The Dark Knight Rises), are both entirely CGI.  I actually cared about both of them and wished that they were not so compelled to follow the unlikeable Oz (as in Wizard of) along his uninspiring journey.

5) Oz the Great and Powerful is a movie without a soul that inspires little interest or intrigue, creates a fantasy world without depth or purpose, and leaves the viewer with every intention to just want to go no place but home.  Part of the land of Oz’s magic and mystique has always been its promise of adventure and discovery juxtaposed with the grey and bleak mundanity of everyday life, but in this iteration, the mundane is Oz, the character so poorly portrayed by James Franco and the green screen created land that he inhabits.

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: LIFE OF PI

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.  Additional note: I have finally (!!!) finished working my way through the movies that are relevant to this weekend’s Academy Awards (nominated in one of the six major categories).  LIFE OF PI was the last movie to see.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

LIFE OF PI

1) Ang Lee (nominated for Best Director) is a master director of both the visual scope (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and of the personal voice (Brokeback MountainThe Ice Storm).  Life of Pi fits well into this construct as a visual masterwork that is created as a beautiful fusion of perspective, light, and color.  Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is gorgeous to view and a credit to his vision.

2) Along those lines, Ang Lee’s use of CGI is effortless and without customary “pulling you out of the moment” detection distraction (see movies made by George Lucas over the last 16 years).  The majority of the movie takes place in the middle of the ocean focusing on the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger.  Richard Parker’s shots in the movie are 86% CGI, but while viewing, you are largely unaware and connect to their burgeoning symbiotic bond as completely real.  

3) Based on conversations I have had with passionate readers of the book (I have unfortunately not read the book), something is left on the table in the movie version of Life of Pi.  It is an incredibly difficult movie to make (it requires some near impossible shots) and Ang Lee has certainly succeeded in so much of his execution, yet something feels unfinished, as if there was an additional layer of meaning that was not given due attention.  It is more “let’s try to make a movie version of Life of Pi” than “let’s try to make Life of Pi.”  It is a partial version, but somehow (and admittedly ambiguously) less than the real thing.

4) At one point, M. Night Shyamalan (the best metaphor for his career: a free fall) was attached to write and direct this project.  Fortunately, by the time Life of Pi was made, he was unattached.  One can only imagine where he would have positioned his “once a movie” cameo.  I fear he may have portrayed one of the zoo animals or a Hindu god.

5) Life of Pi, a movie about a young man’s epic journey of survival across the Pacific Ocean accompanied by a Bengal tiger and his faith, is visually stunning and captivating, yet it rarely dives as deep below the surface as we want it to to fully explore its’ biggest ideas.  We are watching Pi’s story as a viewer from the outside in, but rarely from the inside out, and the result is often breathtaking, but not as profound or as life-affirming as the source material seems to have the potential to suggest.

The Best Christmas Song You Have Never Heard: JOSEPH, BETTER YOU THAN ME by the Killers (with Elton John and Neil Tennant)

Most of you (if you road tripped across Ireland in Note in the summer of 2009, you are the exception) have never heard what may be one of the greatest modern Christmas songs of all time. The story begins in 2006 when the Killers began releasing a yearly Christmas song on iTunes whose proceeds would go toward the Project RED campaign and AIDS in Africa. To date, they have released seven such songs over the years (all can be purchased on this ep), but one such song stretches the possibilities of musical greatness and sets a new high standard for the potential of what a Christmas song can be. In 2008, the Killers partnered with Elton John and Neal Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys to create Joseph, Better You Than Me. Here are the 25 reason why this is the best Christmas song you have never heard.

25 Reasons Why JOSEPH, BETTER YOU THAN ME is the Best Christmas Song You Have Never Heard

1) If you buy the song, all proceeds go to Project RED. JBYTM is a Christmas song that is actually about giving.

2) 0:00 – 0:33 – Brandon Flowers, beautiful yet haunting opening vocal set against some simple piano chords. His falsetto mix is effortless and effervescent.

3) The randomness of the musical mix of The Killers, Elton John, and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. This unorthodox combination is a stroke of musical brilliance.

4) 0:33 – 0:36 – The drum kick entry coupled with Elton John’s first vocal on the second verse. Drum kick entries are always key moments of great songs, but to unexpectedly add the familiar regality of Sir Elton John’s voice to this moment is genius.

5) The music video features footage from the classic The Living Christ Series from 1951. Anytime you can combine a great rock song with stock footage from this “captured in time” miniseries, you have struck artistic gold.

6) Christmas songs rarely begin with such to the point questions: “Are you bad at dealing with the fame, Joseph? Do you see both sides? Do they shove you around?” This is immediately not your average “Hark, Santa Claus is coming to jingle bell rock” Christmas tune.

7) 0:49 – 1:05 – The lines “When the holy night is upon you/Will you do what’s right?/The position is yours.” These big idea questions have universal application. The position is yours.

8) Elton John’s consonant pronunciation of the “s” in the name “Joseph.” He sings it with the hard “z” in “Zephyr” as opposed to Jo-Seph. I love this.

9) 1:08 – 1:14 – The music video’s visual interpretation of “From the temple walls to the New York nights.” The Living Christ Series footage is particularly literal.

10) The essential truth in the questions sung by Elton John: “Will your faith stand still or run away, or run away?”

11) 1:46 – 2:00 – A guitar solo musical break. It is appropriate, accessible, contemplative without losing any of the momentum, and a perfect lead-in for the song’s burgeoning climax that is about to come.

12) 2:08 – 2:15 – The under layered harmony and rhythmic movement on the line “Do you wish you were back there at the carpenter shop?” This is Elton John doing Elton John things as well as he ever has.

13) JBYTM peaked at no. 43 on the Canadian Hot 100 Chart and at no. 64 on the Austrian Singles Top 75 Chart. Such consensus between the Canadians and the Austrians is hard to come by.

14) 2:16 – 2:30 – Neil Tennant’s vocal line. I admit that my experience with the music of the Pet Shop Boys is close to nonexistent, but the alluring and Bob Dylan-esque sound of Mr. Tennant here warrants further exploration.

15) “You’re a maker, a creator, not just somebody’s dad.” Yes! Joseph does matter.

16) The harmony vocal amp up on the second pre-chorus. It is pristine and Elton John’s melody grounds it all. His vocal reverberation is as warm and heartfelt as ever.

17) How many Christmas songs have ever been about Joseph? If there are any, how many have ever been this good? Joseph is an under appreciated figure in the Christmas story and this song is much deserved.

18) Yes, the desert is a “hell of a place” to find heaven, Sir Elton. This truthful admission is in stark contrast to some of the sugarcoated joy of other Christmas tunes.

19) The lyric “All the years since you left/you have time to sit back and reflect” and the Killers tower of harmony vocals that accompanies it. The climax lead-in (because we are almost there) pushes the listener of this song up that mountain top.

20) 3:40 – The beginning of the “Better You Than Me” song climax. The back and forth between Elton and Brandon is simply gorgeous music.

21) The echoes of “Joseph” that begin at 4:20. Elton and Brandon are both working it in the studio on this one. You can feel their electric commitment and vocal talents coming through the sound waves.

22) Joseph, Better You Than Me is a song that grows on you with each listen. There is so much going on both lyrically and musically that it calls for many returns to fully grasp its greatness.

23) 4:36-4:38 – Elton leaves it all out there on his final “Better you than me.” For a man who has given so much to us musically, his amazing effort and drive on this song is so impressive. This is not just another job for Elton. Joseph, Better You Than Me is a special moment in an amazing career.

24) At 4:53, Joseph, Better You Than Me is an epic rock song length. Often Christmas songs are easy in and easy out, but JBYTM takes more time because it has something important to say.

25) The calm after the storm return to the opening line “Well your eyes just haven’t been the same, Joseph” to end the song. Brandon’s delicate summation and denouement is a beautiful ending to a beautiful song.

Happy holidays to you all and if haven’t already made the purchase, do so. This will be the best $1.29 you will ever spend…